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Clemente's Legacy Alive At Island's Sports City

By Iván Román

March 30, 2002
Copyright © 2002
EL SENTINEL. All Rights Reserved.

CAROLINA, Puerto Rico -- The way former major-league first baseman Otoniel Velez tells it, baseball great Roberto Clemente got him through some hard times.

Through teary bouts of homesickness he knew Clemente had survived in far away hotel rooms.

Through the frustration of sometimes being passed over for white players, mindful that Clemente's achievements slowly brought respect for him and others like him in the majors.

Through the fear, shock and anger of being chased back to his hotel room in Tennessee after a game one night by three white men wanting to hurt him.

"He always told me that we had to work twice as hard to make it, and I quickly realized he was telling the truth," said Velez, who played for the Yankees, Blue Jays and Indians for seven years and met Clemente in Puerto Rico's Winter League in the 1960s. "He was a guy who would talk to you, to those of us coming up, give us hope."

Now 51, Velez is following Clemente's example by helping to fulfill his vision, teaching batting skills five days a week to underprivileged kids and teenagers at the sports complex that carries the fallen idol's name.

Some 200,000 kids, adults and cheering parents come every year to the Roberto Clemente Sports City to play baseball, volleyball, to swim competitively, and to learn to be good citizens -- a dream Clemente began laying out before the tragic plane crash that claimed his life on New Year's Eve 1972.

"He is alive here all around us," said Velez, while pitching to his students under a late afternoon sun.

To many his legacy -- far beyond his 12 Golden Gloves and selection as MVP in the 1971 World Series -- is perhaps best exemplified by his fateful decision that killed him. Angry that previous aid sent to Nicaraguan earthquake victims did not reach the right people, Clemente insisted in collecting more clothes, canned food and money in Puerto Rico and taking it there himself.

His family and friends begged him not to take the chartered flight with the unstable cargo into the poor weather that New Year's Eve. But he did, and minutes after taking off, the plane went down into the Atlantic Ocean.

Less than three months after his death, Puerto Rico's government handed over 304 acres of wetlands to develop the Roberto Clemente Sports City, which has five baseball fields as its centerpiece. Every day, hundreds of adults and kids of all ages fill the diamonds, the pool, the batting cages, three covered volleyball courts, and the track and field area. Many wear black jerseys with the Pirates name that Clemente wore the entire 18 years of his major-league career.

Sixth-grader Beatriz Andujar wears the Spanish version -- Piratas 21, which includes Clemente's number -- to the games in her volleyball league that parents run. The baseball great often woke up in the morning, his widow Vera Clemente said, with new ideas for a place with much more than baseball that would benefit more than just the kids.

But this enclave of greenery in a densely populated San Juan suburb inevitably attracted some who would fulfill major-league dreams of their own.

Children that ran the bases years ago turned into athletes that kids the world over now know as Red Sox infielder Carlos Baerga, Texas Rangers catcher and Golden Glove winner Ivan Rodriguez, and Mariners left fielder Ruben Sierra.

Baerga just returned a few months ago to donate a television, VCR and other audiovisual equipment the baseball staff needed to train today's young people. During the off-season, players like Red Sox second baseman Ray Sanchez come to jog, practice and work out in the early morning to beat the crowds and fans.

Young aspiring players like 17-year-old Josue Rodriguez now have these and many more stars to look up to, people like Juan "Igor" Gonzalez and Roberto Alomar. The teenager only got to see Clemente hit number 3,000 and throw someone out at home from right field on a video he rented from Blockbuster.

But Rodriguez, a shortshop on one of 12 teams set up at Sports City with the help of Major League Baseball, says Clemente is still present when he swings the bat.

"He's an idol because when he was little, he was poor and he made it, and he's an example for us to follow," said Rodriguez. "When he was around there was a lot of racism, and he fought it. There are a lot of Puerto Rican ballplayers now, but he is still at the top."

Correa and 23 other former and current Puerto Rican major-league ballplayers are starting the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy and High School this fall with the dual mission of creating good ballplayers and good citizens. In a sense, the ambitious project by the newer generations is the fruit of what Clemente started.

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